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Talkin’ Poo

Dr. Emily Weiss shares the results of a new study on elimination behavior in shelter dogs and stresses the importance of predictable potty routines for the dogs in your care.

I am a bit obsessed about potty routines (for dogs in shelters, I mean!). I feel strongly that predictable schedules for elimination are so important to decrease stress, and they also provide a great window for us to attach a great homeable behavior for canines – urination and defecation on cue.

With a goal to move dogs as quickly as possible (meaning 72 hours or less whenever possible) from intake to home, many amenities can be held until a stay increases beyond a 72-hour benchmark. However, oral enrichment and a potty routine are among the items that should begin upon intake to help decrease stress and increase the likelihood of cue-based elimination.

Even for those facilities with great predicable potty schedules, the old adage “When you gotta go, you gotta go” comes into play. And in that case, where an animal goes is important. A study by Wagner, Newbury, Kass and Hurley published last May focused on the elimination behavior of shelter dogs housed in double compartment kennels. The study was published in PLOS one (an open access journal) and is available here. This straightforward and important study tracked the location of urination and defecation in double-sided guillotine kennels. One side of the kennel held the food, water and bed, while the other side was empty and always available (other than during cleaning time). Location of urine and feces was observed daily for 579 dogs – with a total of 4,440 days of observation. 

As the dogs had daily walks, there was about a 42% chance that no urine or feces was noted in the kennel; when elimination did occur in the kennel, it was a strong preference to urinate or defecate away from food, water and the bed. In fact, only 27.5 percent of observations of feces were on the bed side, with 22.6% of urine on bed side.

Why does this matter? A few reasons – there is a fair amount of data noting that problems with house training is a risk for relinquishment and a failed adoption match. While there is not a study that I am aware of noting the time to habituation of urine and feces in sleeping quarters, we may assume there could be an impact to crate training and house training for dogs who are unable to urinate and defecate away from food, water and their beds. Also, one can assume that there may be a negative connotation for the potential adopter in the observation of poop in the kennel. 

While not all shelters have access to double-sided kennels, many do. Shifts in capacity (shifting average length of stay down can significantly increase available cage space) can make those two-sided cages back into what they were originally designed for – one dog (or two compatible dogs living together) – and facilitate an opportunity for stress reduction and ease of care and feeding for all dogs. Another easy shift, if you already utilize double-sided kennels where the dog has access to both sides: Make sure the food, water and bed are on one side, leaving the second side open for elimination.

Even better, of course, is elimination outside of the kennel altogether. I have noted before the importance of urination and defecation on cue. This can happen through a simple Pavlovian response:
- Assign a word for each action (“Park” and “Hurry” are used in the service dog field, but you can use whatever you want).
- When the dog assumes the position, calmly say and repeat the word until he is done. 
- Do this consistently for a few sessions, and the cue will ‘turn on’ the behavior. 

Imagine the adopter walking outside with you and a prospective dog, with the dog squatting on cue! Most adopters ask the question, “Is he housebroken?” Now you can show them how to best ensure he will be housebroken in his new home!

Dog walking is always a popular volunteer activity – and can turn into a lifesaving activity if routine 2-minute potty breaks are instituted 3x (or more) a day for all dogs starting the day of intake. Enlist your volunteer Poop Pack or Volunteers on Duty for Doody today!   


Related links:

Blog: “Home-able”

Food Guarding: A Very Modifiable Behavior

Study: Elimination Behavior of Shelter Dogs Housed in Double Compartment Kennels

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Thank you, thank you, thank you for your great yet common-sense insight to dogs confined to cages. 


Very useful topic!


The problem at our county kennel is it is only open six hours a day, so dogs are in their double sided runs for all but a 30 minute outside run and any walks we volunteers can give them. It would be great to get a second, evening, shift going but that takes tax money in a predominantly rural area.


Does the kennel need to be open to the public for the volunteers to come?


I agree and at my behavior modification and training center we have the double sided kennels and all dogs that stay with us get scheduled elimination walks which are different from training walks and playtime and rarely have accidents even on the outside portion of the kennel runs. However in a shelter that can be hard to achieve with understaffing and overcrowding of the animals. It would be helpful for shelter directors to schedule walk times for each staff member to take a few dogs out for the two minutes. I know it's easier said than done, but if it's on the schedule and time is alliwed for it daily it would make a huge difference. Another way to reduce stress is structured feeding time in the kennels, if staff goes up and down the row in the same order the dogs will learn the routine and there will be less noise and barking during feeding time. Again with understaffing and overcrowding it can be tough to implement but if it can be done the kennel stress can be greatly reduced


I am fostering a rate terrier named Meg who was a bredding bitch at a really bad hoarder/puppy mill.  We struggle with the pottying outside.  She seems to do great pottying on the walks with my dogs and then she regresses back to pottying inside.  This morning she went out in the back yard first thing at her request not my insistence. I was thrilled.  But then later she pooed on the pee pad inside even though the door to the back yard was still open.  Any idea why?  Thank you for the great subject.  Everyone wants them house trained.  So we are trying hard to get her there so she can get a forever home. 


There is, we understand, good evidence that pups learn where to eliminate at least in part by the feel of the substrate beneath their feet. We find this with animals raised in kennels - even after some training, they still prefer to potty on concrete or paper (depending on their upbringing). We can also use this to our advantage  - eg moving them from eliminating inside to concrete outside before we move the onto grass. We have also used artificial grass on occasions,but it doesn't work as well. We also see stressed dogs who will routinely poop as a territory marker - at gates and doorways. Reducing stress seems to help these guys. Strongly support the "go on command" idea and we use this a lot.


This has been very informative. The shelter where I volunteer has their bed on one side with food and water on the other. They usually eliminate on the side with their food. Some dogs poop in their food bowls after they have eaten. My thinking is they don't want to dirty their space. A 2 min bathroom break is a new concept to me. I am going to try it. Unfortunately I get to the shelter 2-3 hours before they close for the day. Not sure if the strategy will still work.

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